Abraham is considered the father of three of the world’s religions…Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He is usually thought of as a simple, nomadic shepherd. But is this picture accurate? New research suggests that it may not be. It is a question I explore in my novel, True Identity, in which my main character, an undercover Mossad agent, discovers he was a follower of the Hebrew Patriarch Abraham in a previous life.
To those who think of Abraham as a simple herder of sheep, the Bible seems contradictory. There are numerous tales of his being welcomed and greeted by various Middle Eastern monarchs from the Philistine King of Gerar to the Pharoah of Egypt. He seems a part of their world, but yet outside of it. It doesn’t seem likely that the ruling elite would pay attention to a shephard, or nomadic tribal chief and so many have come to believe these stories to be fairy tales included in the Bible to elevate Abraham’s status rather than maintain historical accuracy. But what if Abraham and the Hebrews were not nomadic, or even tribal? Is there an alternative explanation for Abraham’s travels and royal visits? Who were the Hebrews and their famous leader, Abraham?
Archeologists have uncovered inscriptions throughout the Middle East that record the presence of a people known as the Habiru. These Habiru were not a tribal, or ethnic group, but a social caste of persons who did not owe allegiance to any one city-state, or ruler. They reside among many cultures and often cross national boundaries which places them outside of the protection of any particular monarch. But they are not considered nomadic, or homeless and show up in many professions from soldier to merchant to government administrators.
So, who were the stateless people known as the Habiru? Archeological evidence shows they were a multi-ethnic group. The Tikunani Prism from about 1550 B.C. lists the names of 438 Habiru soldiers serving King Tunip-Tessup of Tikunani (a small kingdom in Northern Mesopatamia). The majority of these names are of Hurrian origin, with some Semitic and one Kassite represented. What tied the Habiru together was not there ethnic origins, but their trade. They were the skilled craftsmen sought after by the rulers of many nations including metallurgists, scribes, jewelers, potters, astrologers and the like. These craftsmen formed guilds, or unions, to protect the trade secrets that kept them in demand and themselves. It was the chaos created by the warfare and famine of the 2nd Millenium B.C. that caused these professionals to be stateless wanderers, as various cities fell to invasion and civil strife. Unlike the farmers and landowners, the craftsmen could move to a new town where their skills were needed and their family was safe. But they fell outside the protection of any one ruler, which is why many of them became mercenaries and soldiers for self-defense.
So, were the Hebrews of the Bible the same as the Habiru of the 2nd Century B.C.? There is a growing concensus that they were. Stories and descriptions of the two groups parallel each other. Here are some examples to consider:
– As we have stated, Abraham traveled the Middle East and was welcomed by several rulers, which fits his being a skilled artisan, or merchant prince better than his being a nomadic shephard.
– In Genesis, we read that Abraham battled the Five Kings of the plains of Mesopotamia to secure the return and safety of his nephew, Lot, and at the request of various rulers of Canaan. Scholars have questioned how a bedouin shepherd could defeat such powerful armies, but the Habiru were known to be mercenaries and were often hired by the rulers of various city-states. We then see him welcomed and thanked by Melchizedek, the king of Salem.
– Abraham is said in Genesis to originate in Ur Kasdim. Some, including myself, believe this to be the Hurrian capital city of Urkesh in Northern Mesopatamia. We have already seen that the Habiru were primarily of Hurrian ethnicity from the Tikunani Prism. The Hurrians were skilled craftsmen and metallurgists and Urkesh was a major center of trade in the 2nd Millenium B.C. The Hebrews themselves are found to have many customs that resemble those of the Hurrians including the practice of referring to your first wife as your sister, as Abraham does on two separate occasions in the Bible.
– Like the Hebrews, the gods of the Habiru were known by the Hittites and others to be separate from their own and unique. Both were portable and did not require large temples.
– Like the Habiru, the Hebrews were multi-ethnic. We read of Abraham’s followers from Haran and of Eleazar of Damascus, Abraham’s trusted aide. The prophet Jeremiah says of the Hebrews that their mother was a Hittite and their father a wandering Aramean.
– The city of Ebla was rich and powerful until it’s defeat and destruction in the early 2nd Millenium B.C. Their language and customs are very similar to that of the Hebrews. During its heyday, the city was among the most international and cosmopolitan in the world with many languages and ethnic groups living side by side and driven by trade. The two primary nationalities were Semites and Hurrians, just like among the Habiru (Hebews?) of this time. Under Ebla’s most famous king, Ebrum, there appears to be a transition of deity’s from El, to Ya, which may be an earlier and shortened form of the name Yahweh of the Bible. Ebrum himself may be related to Eber, the ancestor of the Hebrews. I speculate that the Eblaites may be a core part of what became the Habiru (Hebrews), after their city was invaded and destroyed. The skilled merchants and craftsmen of Ebla then became bound by guild and profession rather than nationality and traveled between town and empire to where their skills were needed and their safety met.
There is much more evidence than what is described here to illustrate that the Hebrews were not uneducated bedouins, but sophisticated professionals who’s skills were sought by the rulers and elite of many lands. As an educated and skilled professional myself, it is much easier for me to identify with this kind of spiritual ancestor than a nomadic bedouin and it reveals the Bible to be more historically accurate than previously thought. More importantly, it shows that the Hebrews were not of a single race, or ethnicity, but made up of different peoples who came together out of faith, culture and profession. It seems that Abraham and the Hebrews were more like us than we may have realized.
Sam Griswold is the publisher of JewishPrism.com and author of the novel, True Identity, now available on Amazon, about an Israeli Mossad agent who loses his memory while undercover in Iraqi Kurdistan.